The home used to be a linguistic minefield when entertaining guests. How you referred to your furniture, in addition to the rooms which they occupied, was used as an indicator of your social class background. This isn’t the case anymore, as the great class divide seems to have become a little foggy over the past few decades. Now the varied usage of the many synonyms we have for items of furniture are remnants of the once prevalent “U” and “Non-U” English-isms that used to govern our social etiquette. Both U (Upper Class) and Non-U (Non-Upperclass) words are now used interchangeably as inter-mingling between classes, through use of media or everyday communication, is increasingly common.
Non-U English can seem a little pretentious in comparison to U English as the upper-class had nothing to prove – they were already upper class. Non-U English would mainly be used by the aspiring upper-middle class or “new rich” who wanted to distinguish themselves from the working class by making a display of being “posh” (another word which the upper class wouldn’t typically use, unless for ironic effect) as an attempt at social-climbing. Think Hyacinth Bucket…
Whereas the upper class, on the other hand, would commonly use many of the same vocabulary as a working class person, making no attempt to seem “posher” than they already are.
Whether you call it a couch, sofa or a settee can say a lot about your social background – that is, if you’ve inherited your preference from your parents or their parents before them.
Couch vs Sofa vs Settee
Is there a difference between a couch, a sofa and a settee? We held a small poll on our Twitter account, where we found that 56% commonly referred to their sofa as a sofa. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to sofa too.) With 48% calling it a couch.
It seems that many will still use any of the three names listed above depending on the context (couch, for example, is single-syllable and packs a little punch so may be the instinctive first choice for certain sentences), though they will hold a natural preference.
Dating back to the 1950’s, one would sit on a sofa if they were upper-middle class or above. “Middle-middles” and below would sit on a couch or a settee, though the item of furniture they were referring to would essentially be the same thing. The sofa would be found in the sitting room or the drawing room, not like the settee which would be found in the lounge or living room. Though, again, they refer to the same room. (Though the drawing room may seem slightly pretentious if located in an ordinary house so the term “sitting room” may be preferred in this instance.) And, of course, if you had a front room then you were obviously working class (but “front room” only really applies if the room is front-facing). Other names for the living room include the “family room” and the “parlour”.
But is a couch, a sofa and a settee the same thing?
Traditionally the couch, sofa and settee were three very different items of furniture. But in modern English, they have all come to mean the same thing.
The word “sofa” originates from the Arabic word “soffah”. The eastern Mediterranean soffah, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:
“a part of the floor raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions, and used for sitting upon.”
It wasn’t until the 19th century, after a few variations on the spelling, that the soffah became the sofa.
The first recorded use of the term “couch” referring to a seat is understood to be around 1500 in the medieval work Merlin:
“Thei… satte down on a cowche that was covered with a cloth of silke.”
Originally, the word “couch” was intended more as a bed than it was a chair, from the French word “coucher” meaning “to sleep”. The couch was closer to a daybed or a chaise longue than the sofa which we would commonly think of now. Ironically, in the US, “couch” is the most widely used variant of the word, yet they most commonly refer to the sofa bed as a sofa bed rather than a “couch bed”. Despite “couch” probably being better suited in context.
The original settee.
The settee comes from the word “setl” (or “settle”); an ornately crafted, long wooden bench with a high back popular in the Middle Ages, which eventually evolved to include upholstery on the arms and back to provide comfort. The settle could easily accommodate up to four people seated, and the height of them was intended to protect the sitters from the draughts of old, medieval buildings. The settee today is generally used to describe any upholstered sofa.
So although couch, sofa and settee were traditionally quite distinctive from each other, the evolution of the modern sofa has swallowed up the original three original meanings. When someone mentions having either a couch, a sofa or a settee, the three are quite indistinguishable.
So… What do you call yours?